Monday, June 24, 2013
posted under Charles Dickens , Dante , Fredric Jameson , George Eliot , Lauren Goodlad , Mad Men , Mad World , Season 6 , Todd Gitlin by Unit for Criticism
"The Only Unpardonable Sin"
Written by: Lauren Goodlad English/Unit for Criticism)
The literal referent of “In Care Of” is a letter received from the District Attorney of the County of New York addressed to Miss Sally Beth Draper, “c/o Mr. Donald F. Draper.” But in a more a figurative sense, the motif of care—and of care of another—runs throughout this final episode of Mad Men’s Season 6. As the season concludes, the only care Pete exhibits for his mother’s passing is his getting his fair share of her furniture, having determined that an all-expense paid private eye to “bring [his] mother’s killer to justice” was not worth the cost. (This and the black comedy in which the scene between Pete and the SS Sunset Princess was played, left us little time to contemplate the apparent treachery of Manny—a/k/a “Marcus Constantine”—who seduces Pete’s mother while she is in his care, marries her for the money he believes she has, and then throws her over the side of a ship into shark-infested waters.)
Don seeks forgiveness early on from Betty when he tells her, “I’m sorry,” as though admitting to himself that he is more to blame for Sally’s troubles than even her mother could guess. Later, he hopes that Megan will forgive his discarding the plan for a new start in California. (It is an idea he shamelessly steals from Stan who is the first of several characters in this episode to hanker for the dream of a simpler life in a sunnier “frontier,” as though LA were once again Mad Men’s vision of Paradiso). Yet, during most of the episode it is not so much the wish for forgiveness which motivates Don but, rather, a desire to care: for Sally, for Betty (whom he once again addresses as “Birdie,” his old term of endearment), for Ted (whose marriage he helps save at the risk of losing his own), and—at a professional level—for all the young boys (and, by extension, everyone) who don’t need an ad man to tell them what a Hershey bar is.
This marks an extraordinary moment for Mad Men: a reversal within the show’s generic core which switches the valences of its representation (an idea inspired partly by Fredric Jameson’s recent Valences of the Dialectic). It as though advertising—hitherto the very emblem of free-wheeling global capital and the reign of the commodity fetish—has become the medium of a redemption that goes all the way down. When Don meets a minister who tells him that Jesus can offer you “freedom from pain in this life,” he punches him out and ends up sleeping it off in the drunk tank. It is only later—while making his pitch to Hershey—that SC&P’s boardroom becomes Don’s confessional as he takes his first major step away from unpardonable sin and toward forgiveness.
At the level of character, this is the first time Don has done anything significant not for the sake of some instrumental end—another advertising coup, the stroking of his ego, the gratification of the flesh, or the indulgence of some quixotic whim—but in the hopes of becoming a more caring person; the kind of man who might truly take “care of” his troubled daughter. To be sure, we have seen Don feign the high moral ground (e.g., pretending to withdraw from cigarette advertising on grounds of public well-being when, in reality, the agency had been fired). And we have seen Don’s often delusive knack for believing himself to be better than the surrounding sordidness; persuading himself, for example, that the break with Jaguar in "The Flood" was a noble act. Of course, Don does have a certain noble streak, a vein of tenderness, a dash of the chivalrous and heroic. The problem with Don has never been that he lacks the makings of the good but, rather, that, as Betty says of Sally, “the good is not beating the bad.”
This inability to grow, to learn from experience and become a better man, has not only been the condition of Don’s character but, even more fundamentally, the condition of his story world. As Dana Polan wrote in his post on “The Flood,” “Mad Men is a series that cannot acknowledge intentional agency in the service of consequential change as anything more than foolish.” In generic terms, Mad Men has thus been a species of naturalistic realism, comparable to novels such as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (on which the 1951 movie A Place in the Sun was based)—all narratives of betrayal which culminate in the death of an anti-hero. According to the influential Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukács, naturalistic fiction is a sign of a society’s political decline in its depicting “human values” captive to the implacable rule of “the commodity structure of capitalism.” It is the kind of world in which, as April says in Richard Yates’s proto-Mad Menesque tragedy, Revolutionary Road, “No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”
Here, then, is the generic rupture signaled by “In Care Of”: an episode in which the same philanderer who, two episodes ago, was not above telling his daughter that he was “comforting” the neighbor in whose bed she had found him cavorting, miraculously gets better at telling the truth. Thanksgiving indeed! Less a desperate adulterer like Flaubert’s Emma, or a pitiless social climber like Dreiser’s Clyde, Don, for once, ends this episode in something like the position of George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. A young woman who did not push her loathsome husband off the side of a boat (as Manolo did Dot and as Clyde did his pregnant girlfriend), Gwendolen ends the novel chastened and suffering, but seemingly ready to atone. She is not the “harlot” that her suggestive name and mercenary marriage had led us to anticipate.
Though there is no telling if Don will sustain his new-found role as penitent, it is worth emphasizing just how thoroughly this turn toward redemption has turned Mad Men’s symbolic universe upside down. Consider Roger, for example. For most of this season, he has played the part of Don’s comic foil: a dapper middle-aged man of means who embraces the 60s counterculture like a flâneur in a double-breasted sports jacket. Roger is, of course, no hero but his ability to adapt himself to the times suggests a resilience that few would have anticipated at the end of Season 4 when he looked to be just another worn-out ad man who got the trophy marriage he deserved.
But “In Care Of” turns out to reject flâneurie in favor of a message that has been imperceptibly gaining ground throughout this season. As Duck Phillips warned Pete in “The Better Half,” a man who cannot manage his family “can’t manage anything.” A man’s family is “the wellspring” of his “confidence”; without them, he “fills the room with desperation.” At the time, many viewers may have seen these lines as so much patriarchal claptrap ginned up to sell Pete a job in Wichita—by a man, no less, who in Season 2 lacked the self-control to manage Chauncey, the family dog. But Duck, it would seem, has truly found God, at least in the idiom of this soul-centered episode. It is ironic but not self-canceling that he enunciates the truth Don must learn even as he earns a commission for delivering Don’s replacement when the partners of SC&P vote to put this alcoholic on temporary leave (aligning him with the abject Freddy Rumsen of “Six Months Leave”).
This switching of the valences turns Roger back into a “forlorn” victim of his own narcissism—a man who lacks the good will or good sense to mend fences with his daughter Margaret by investing in her husband’s company. “What do I have to do,” she asks him, foreshadowing the embittered daughter whom Sally may one day become, “to get on the list of girls you give money to?” Roger ends the episode in care of Joan, but it is care with limits. “I’m inviting you into Kevin’s life, not mine,” she says firmly, showing herself to be one of the few characters unchanged by the episode's reversals. Joan, that is, begins and ends this season as a woman who can live down her "harlotry." We do not judge Joan, (as Peggy seems ready to do), for her willingness to sleep with clients in order to break down the door of this men’s club. The reason we do not judge her, of course, is that she never denies what she's doing.
To be sure, Joan is one of the partners who tries Don behind his back, finding him guilty of violating the one unpardonable sin of the business world: Do Not Forget that Making Money is the Only Thing That Matters. This bottom-line ethos was made crystal clear in last week’s episode for Ted, a character who periodically looks beyond the laws of profit and loss for his moral compass. In “The Quality of Mercy,” to my mind the season’s most outstanding episode, Ted is crushed to find himself out-maneuvered when Don pays him back for the former’s smoldering romance with Peggy. Though Don’s trumping of the Chaough-controlled Ocean Spray with the Draper-controlled Sunkist violated the truce he had sworn to in “Favors,” what’s important, as Jim Cutler readily affirmed, is landing the bigger account. In the same episode we saw Pete inferring a similar lesson from his experience in Season 1: businessmen like Bert don’t care if their execs have fictitious identities so long as they are good at their jobs.
In the new space of the boardroom-as-confessional, Don does not act to out-compete his male rivals, for the sake of a Clio, for a bigger bottom line, or even to get that "electric jolt" he spoke of in "The Doorway" from some new female object of desire. “I was an orphan; I grew up...in a whorehouse,” he says and, in doing so, puts to rest the ad world’s long-churning desire for an answer to the “Who is Don Draper?” question. But Don’s act is not only tendered on behalf of the truth of his sordid past. It is also an act on behalf of a purer relation to the object than advertising—the core task of which is to stoke the fetishization of commodities—could ever permit. The Hershey bars he ate as a kid when a sympathetic hooker cut him in on the cash he stole from her johns were “the only sweet thing in my life.” That is all. If Marx himself made a guest appearance on Mad Men the message would not be more clear.
But are there no losers as Mad Men switches the valence from a fallen naturalism to a world in which, contra Dana’s dictum, “intentional agency in the service of consequential change” may, as yet, have its day? The answer, I fear is Peggy Olson: and not only because she has lost her chance with Ted. Indeed, from a girl talk perspective the real question should be why Peggy wants Ted so badly in the first place, a man whose most powerful erotic urge is clearly invested in Don, as Nick Mirzoeff was the first to observe on this blog. Witness how lying in Peggy’s arms after months of ostensible yearning, his first thought is of a Christmas trip to Hawaii: exactly the trip that Don took with Megan in the season premiere.
Blogging last April on the wonderful Season 5 episode, “Far Away Places,” I noted that Peggy still seemed to be the show’s one open channel to the rising counterculture of the late 1960s. Season 6 has disabused that prediction insofar as it was the departed Abe (and, to a lesser degree, Ginsberg) who took us closest to the country’s political heart. Central to this change was an antiwar movement that by 1968, as Todd Gitlin writes in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, had become a mainstream concern. Protests were not simply enacted by the likes of students and radicals like Abe but also by middle-class women like Sylvia Rosen, unwilling to lose their sons in a misguided Cold War adventure. Hence, it is not just that Peggy is nowhere even close to the frontlines of this (or any other) social movement. She is also strangely out of step with the political mood of her generation (however good she looks in a mini-skirt!).
As Bruce Robbins noted in his post on the premiere, the war comes up through a client’s last-minute rejection of an ad campaign that reminds him of an atrocity involving US soldiers cutting off the ears of the Vietcong. The client, like many real-life people in 1968, is shocked by this terrible window on a war sold to the American people as an anti-Communist cake walk. “This was a horrible thing” he tries to tell Peggy. Yes it was, she replies, with a patient professionalism, before insisting that he has forgotten what is really at stake: “It’s about making a great ad.” It is a single-mindedness from which Peggy has rarely seemed to budge this season. Can anyone thus be surprised that in the one of the funniest episodes, Abe breaks up with Peggy because the bizarre accident of her stabbing him enables him to reach a grim aperçu: “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment,” he tells her. “I'm sorry, but you'll always be the enemy.”
Though Peggy has had her share of great lines and deeds—putting Don and Ted in their places, for example, and helping out Joan in a moment of sisterhood—what is, by now, all too clear is that she has taken Don’s place. That is to say, she has grown habituated to a style of power-seeking that she learned from her male mentors. I do not mean that Peggy lacks a woman's perspective. But is anyone surprised to find her taking over Don’s office as she once did Freddy Rumsen’s--and even wearing the pants? From this view, Peggy’s interest in Ted is telling: both the consummation of the affair she never had with Don (on which she alternately prides herself and feels rejected) and a sign that her world has contracted to the narrow milieu of advertising. We do not quite imagine that Peggy joined the famous construction worker bloc in voting for Nixon. But we can no longer expect her to provide that live conduit to the world of 1968 that the series needs.
As Caroline Levine and I wrote at the end of the last season, Season 5 triumphed because it took a risk in building a new character—Megan Draper—in order to make palpable Don’s experience of a new and exciting kind of marriage. Though of a smaller bore than in the early seasons, “The Phantom” was a demonstrable historical coup as well: it used the motif of the Bond man to dramatize the point that with Megan’s exit from advertising into the dream of artistic autonomy, Don would fall back into the pleasures and perils of the male privilege he embodies like nobody else. By contrast, this season’s historical events were disconnected from the narrative at large. The tragic death of Martin Luther King, which took place mid-season, taught us nothing that we didn’t already know about Don, Megan, Peggy, and Ginsberg. Likewise, the Chicago riots neither resonated with nor lit up some hitherto unseen pocket of any character’s social or psychological narrative. Thus, despite the great effort of Mad Men’s always savvy writers to inject a more ramifying revolutionary thematic through the Dickens motif of "A Tale of Two Cities," the episode was, at its best, a kind of historical pastiche.
Is it too late to hope that the unseen story we discern on their faces can take its cue from that little boy on the porch—who is, to be sure, one of Don’s many doubles? Since Mad Men clearly intends to extend its status as historical fiction, is it not time for a character whose story we can understand through these “Days of Hope, Days of Rage”?
It seems to me more than worth the risk. For it just possible that the most unpardonable sin for the creators of Mad Men is the belief that history will forgive you.